Entrepreneur converts nuisance bush honeysuckle to functional furniture

Dale Dufer had spent four decades as a woodworker before realizing in 2014 that he had an abundant supply of sturdy, artistic material right in his St. Louis backyard.

Actually, it was taking over his backyard.

Dufer and his wife had spent the afternoon hacking away at an overgrowth of bush honeysuckle, an invasive plant that migrated to the United States from Asia and elbowed its way into Missouri about 40 years ago.

“We had piles of it,” said Dufer, 66, who lives in the Franz Park neighborhood south of Forest Park. His business, Dale Dufer Studios, kept him busy building custom-designed cabinets, desks and accent pieces. He also occasionally made stick furniture as gifts for friends, and the bush honeysuckle scraps seemed to hold potential. They were strong and uniquely shaped, with branches that angled and curved like a baby deer finding its legs.

And they were prolific. “You can get it anywhere. Act now — supplies are unlimited!” Dufer likes to joke.

The construction process was a departure from the exacting measurements of furniture he is commissioned to build, for which “the right angle is king,” he said.

“This is not your typical woodworking. It’s kind of abstract. You learn about the structure of nature, how amazingly strong a Y connection or branch connection is.”

Soon, just like the plant itself, the bush honeysuckle tables he was making began to proliferate, spilling out of his crowded basement workshop and into his backyard. Some were small enough for a child’s playroom, one had a sculptural, mushroom-cap metal top, and others became benches sitting atop a jumble of intertwining legs.

The centerpiece of the backyard — with its scalloped yellow top holding a basket of oversized wooden apples and an enormous blue pitcher — towers over the rest of the furniture like a prop from a scene in “Alice in Wonderland.” At 6 feet tall, it is the as-yet undisputed world’s largest bush honeysuckle table, said Dufer.

Process over product

Once his idea had come to fruition, Dufer came up with a name: Think About Tables. “It came out of a conversation, of just, ‘What are you doing down there?’ I’m thinking about tables.”

He contacted Shaw Nature Reserve about teaching a table-making workshop. Dufer was able to cut the process to just the basics, relying on the inherent stability of a three-legged structure, a handsaw, a drill and a few jury-rigged steps.

“I show the students a pile of sticks and away they go,” he said. He teaches classes at Shaw in the fall and spring, when honeysuckle removal is at its peak. Most of his students are adults, but he prefers to teach his techniques to youngsters who may have never built anything from scratch.

“I love working with kids. They don’t have woodworking or shop classes anymore,” he said. “This is a chance to learn about structure, cutting wood, getting something to balance.”

He has taught private sessions at schools that then sell the student’s pieces as a fundraiser, and has put on art shows alone and with his students’ work.

This weekend, his Think About Tables pieces will be featured at Shaw Nature Reserve’s annual art show in Gray Summit.

But earning money from the bush honeysuckle furniture — which have sold for less than $200 and up to $1,300 — is not Dufer’s priority.

“It’s not really what I’m trying to do. It’s to teach people how to do it. You take (the table) home and you’re planting the seed for conversation about the damage bush honeysuckle does.”

Promoting biodiversity

“Dale is a wonderful spokesperson for what we do and our mission,” said Jon Serfas, the event supervisor at the nature reserve. “He’s kind of a pioneer. You can’t build buildings out of the honeysuckle, but the material is really strong. It comes in many shapes and makes unique and functional furniture.

“And it helps tell the story of the removal of the plant that causes so many problems to our woodlands.”

Bush honeysuckle was introduced to the United States as an ornamental plant, one that grows thick and tall to provide shade and privacy. But it takes over quickly, “greening out” in the spring earlier than native plants and staying green later in the fall. The leaves hog the sunlight, and the bush competes with native plants for nutrients. The plant’s red berries attract birds who spread the seeds far and wide.

In the past several years, “honeysuckle sweeps” hosted by organizations such as the Missouri Botanical Garden, Forest Park Forever and the Missouri Department of Conservation have helped loosen honeysuckle’s grip on area parks and woodlands.

“As you’re removing the invasive species and opening land to native plants, you’re seeing biodiversity go up, providing more habitats for native plants and pollinators,” Serfas said.

Most of the honeysuckle that’s been removed gets burned or chipped, he said. But they set aside some interesting pieces for Dufer.

Dufer often completes the tables with a top recovered from Lumber Logs in St. Louis. The urban tree recycler picks up trees that have been cut down and “gives them a better, more noble end,” said owner Tom Sontag.

Without tree recycling, most would become mulch, he said. His business sells the majority of its reclaimed lumber to builders, but some trunks are cut into “cookies,” cross-section rounds that can be used for tabletops.

“There’s a lot of different kinds of trees in the St. Louis area. There are a lot of species that are not commercially available,” Sontag said. “It’s a valuable resource that’s underused.”

And making the most of resources that are already at hand has become Dufer’s career within a career. “I’m having fun,” he said. “What a treat to be able to find something at this stage in my life that can be fun.

“I’m hoping someone does come along and goes after this in a monetary fashion. It’s a free resource, and it gives back in biodiversity.”

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